“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin looks at writing, process, and meaning.
As a Creative Writing teacher, I always told my students that it is not our job to rip apart the poem, but rather discuss the poem, figure out how it may pertain to our own lives, and work to understand the context in which the poem was written. In other words, why should we care about it?
That being said, I don’t agree with Larkin [see tweet above]. If the poet is the only one who should care about the poem itself, why bother to submit it? Why bother to put it in a book? Why bother to do anything beyond hang it on the wall and admire it until the next one is written and then wash, rinse, repeat?
I realize that I am reading way beyond the Larkin quote; however, I don’t know the context in which it fell from his lips, but it did, and much like the tabloids it only takes one out-of-context quote to throw the whole world in a tizzy. I get that the writing process can be incredibly intimate, but when does the writer, the artist, the whatever-the-next-cliché-may-be, have to either shit or get off the pot? Writing is a beautiful expression of one’s mind, but at some point, if you’re not sharing the pieces, then what’s really the point of having written them?
There are countless bedroom poets in this world—the ones who write in their journals, put down the final punctuation, and tuck the book away until some other burst of inspiration comes their way. Or there’s the Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter poet, who used to be the MySpace poet, who started as the Blogger poet, who posts poetry on status updates and comments and walls and photos. But even these poets seek an audience—regardless of the quality of the work, it’s still their work that they want others to see.
Philip Larkin published several works of poetry; so that in and of itself seems a bit hypocritical to me. Again, maybe I’m taking this the wrong way; in that case, let’s say I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Maybe he just doesn’t want people tearing it apart, trying to bypass the authorial fallacy, and accusing the author of doing, thinking, feeling something he may have merely made up—after all, his poems are just for him and no one else, right? If poets are, to quote Shelly, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then how do they legislate without at least attempting some voice in what’s going on in the world?
It used to be that poets, along with philosophers, were banished, thought of as truth seekers, and no one wanted to hear their questions—or more, that no one wanted to face the answers. Poets would speak and wonder and opine about current issues and simply hope that someone would question along with them. While poets are no longer banished—in fact, the poetry movement seems to be riding a strong high at the moment—it seems that Larkin is saying that we should leave it alone, or at least leave alone the idea that one can read the poet’s mind and instead should seek the meaning of the poem in the context of their own life, rather than that of the author they may never know enough to understand, if the words even resonate beyond the page.
Now, Larkin passed away in 1985 and didn’t have an opportunity to see where poetry was heading. The vision of poets today is for the world to take notice. To remind people they can stand up to the world with their words. They can be acknowledged rather than unacknowledged. Writers want people to learn from their words, hear their words, and do something because of their words—even if it’s to simply have a conversation.